USC professor fights to save Australian icon

A University of the Sunshine Coast professor has been named a ‘Queensland Great’ for his efforts to save an iconic Australian animal from extinction.

Microbiology professor Peter Timms is leading the development of vaccines to help protect koalas.

A world expert in chlamydia infections in humans and animals, he was recognized at a Queensland Greats awards ceremony at Brisbane City Hall.

He was one of six people to be recognised, alongside Queensland elder Uncle Albert Holt, youth and multicultural cricketer and advocate Usman Khawaja, burns treatment pioneer Dr Stuart Pegg, groundbreaking engineer Else Shepherd and First Nations health and human rights advocate Gracelyn Smallwood.

The awards recognized the efforts and achievements of extraordinary Queenslanders for their contribution to the history and development of the state.

Professor Timms said it was an “unexpected honour”.

“(The award) demonstrates the benefits of turning research into reality,” he said.

A koala at EVE Clinic, Toorbul. Photo: Lou O’Brien.

Professor Timms has led the research needed to understand and act on the two major koala disease threats of chlamydia and koala retrovirus.

“It shows that if you have the passion and the dedication, and also a quest for knowledge, then it’s possible to use the scientific approach to understand the challenges of the real world enough and eventually take this to the stage where it can do a real difference,” he said.

The results suggest that the koala chlamydia vaccine, developed, tested and administered by Professor Timms and his team of researchers at USC’s Center for BioInnovation, could be a game-changer for the koala’s future.

“Unfortunately the number of koalas in Queensland continues to decline every year,” he said.

“With habitat destruction, disease continues to be one of the main threats to the icon and many wild populations have chlamydia disease levels approaching 30-50%.”

Up to 1,000 wild koalas in southeast Queensland will receive the single-shot vaccine this year, in the largest-ever trial to tackle the sexually transmitted disease, which can lead to painful urinary tract infections, loss bladder control, infertility, blindness and death.

Koala chlamydia researchers and Professor Peter Timms at work. Photo: Lou O’Brien.

“Antibiotics, although the main treatment in humans, may not be the answer in koalas because those same antibiotics that kill chlamydia also destroy the animal’s gut microbiome, which it depends on to digest the leaves of the animal. eucalyptus,” he said.

The vaccine provides three levels of protection for koalas: reducing levels of infection circulating in the population, reducing progression to clinical disease, and reversing existing cases of the disease.

Professor Timms is also working with an Australian company and federal veterinary regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, to get the vaccine approved for registration in hopes of an Australia-wide roll-out soon.

“Many people have contributed to understanding this problem of chlamydia disease in koalas and now hopefully we have reached the stage where we not only have a better understanding but also a tool – a vaccine – that can help recover koala populations that may be extinct,” he said.

“This award helps me raise the flag for all these contributors. It’s yet another example of how the people of Queensland are leading the way in tackling Australia’s environmental challenges.

USC Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Ross Young said Professor Timms was a dedicated and tireless researcher who demonstrated the highest academic standards and commitment to trying to save koalas.

“His passion for koala science involves successfully mentoring the next generation of academics and PhDs working in this field, and partnering with organizations in Queensland and other universities who are also dedicated to koala health. , most recently with Australia Zoo,” he said.

“He has served all Queenslanders and indeed Australia in his quest to advance our commitment to science and the application of world-class research to address an area of ​​vital importance to Queensland”

Professor Peter Timms has a real passion for koala science.

Professor Timms’ landmark contributions to chlamydia infections span decades and make him the world authority in the field.

He mentors and guides young researchers in the field of koala infectious diseases and oversees a world-class research team at USC that leads international work on all aspects of chlamydia infections, including new diagnostics and treatments for human and animal diseases.

In 2018, he was co-leader of the team that produced the first and only complete koala genome sequence, which enabled new research, including on infectious diseases, their unique lactation, their ability to detoxify the foliage, olfactory and taste receptors and historical population crashes.

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Professor Timms surprised the scientific world in 1996, pioneering the use of cutting-edge molecular techniques to identify the two species of chlamydia infecting koalas – C.pneumoniae and C.pecorum.

His subsequent work on the sequencing of the C. pneumoniae genome revealed new evolutionary links to humans and exposed the extent of chlamydia infections in wild koalas.

A second area of ​​interest is research for a better understanding and development of a vaccine against the koala retrovirus, which, along with chlamydia, poses a serious threat to the long-term survival of the marsupial and has been strongly linked to koalas developing cancers such as lymphoma. and leukemia.

Professor Timms has published over 300 scientific works during his academic career with almost 700 co-authors.

He has held 17 grants from the Australian Research Council and the National Council of Health and Medical Research to advance this work and has advanced five patents since 2011 to ensure his research has practical impact and benefit. .

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